To the world, India is often known as the land of Gandhi, spiritualism, and yoga – three sets of beliefs and practices closely associated with some form of vegetarianism. They have played a role in creating the widely held assumption that Indians are vegetarians.

Though India has the largest population of vegetarians worldwide, it is a predominantly meat-eating nation. Nevertheless, vegetarianism is both a powerful norm, and an important performance, both of which are central to a person’s claim to high status in the largely caste-based Indian worldview. As a desired attribute of so-called upper caste groups, vegetarian norms are so desirable that they enforce periodic ritual abstinence even among frequent meat eaters.

Vegetarianism is also present in several societies outside India, especially in the West where a small but increasing number of people aspire to live without consuming meat. The roots of vegetarianism both in India and in the West lie in a comparable time period. Vegetarianism started becoming an aspired value in the South Asian region around the seventh century BCE in Hindu scriptures, and a few centuries later in Jain and Buddhist texts and practices.

In Europe, the earliest mention of the virtues of vegetarianism is found in the works of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (sixth century BCE), who propagated a meatless diet. In fact, vegetarians in Europe were called Pythagoreans until the founding of The Vegetarian Society in Ramsgate, England in 1847, and the American Vegetarian Society in New York City in 1850. However, similarities between Indian and western vegetarianism end here. While vegetarianism has been popular in India for a much longer period than in the West, the more important difference is that vegetarianism is led by, and leads to, very different worldviews in both places.

West: Vegetarianism for social justice

Although 19th century vegetarianism in Britain and the US was rooted in the Bible Christian Church, it has evolved in these two countries primarily through secular social movements. Four broad values have driven these movements: ethics and morality, environmental concerns, animal rights, and health and food safety. Barring the last one, the first three concerns are comparatively altruistic, and oriented towards a shared public good. Participants in vegetarian social movements transform themselves both in thought and behaviour, by changing not only their belief about food but also everyday consumption patterns. This is an extraordinary transformation because eating habits are one of the most resilient to change, especially those that involve excluding previously consumed food items completely.

In the West, to be a vegetarian is also to be against the general norms about food – it is often seen as a rebellious act opposed to long-standing cultural norms and expectations. Therefore, vegetarianism in the West is a lifestyle that involves a deep commitment to self-transformation, breaking away from everyday dietary preferences, going against the forces of socialisation, and rebelling against cultural norms – all for the sake of newly discovered ethics and concerns.

There is an interesting spillover of these broad concerns when participants of vegetarian movements are often advocates in other campaigns – such as anti war, anti pollution, anti nuclear, and anti corporate movements. In effect, vegetarianism in the West is part of the broader platform of social justice from which various ethical, humanist, and egalitarian movements emerge and evolve. A person in the West becomes a vegetarian through a deliberate process, by questioning received knowledge about consumption, and by painfully transforming one’s day-to-day behaviour. Therefore, a vegetarian individual in the West is most likely to be a progressive figure oriented towards broader ethics of social justice.

Brahmanism and vegetarianism in India

In contrast, vegetarianism in contemporary India displays an arguable continuity with dietary traditions and beliefs central to Brahmanism and the caste system where communities deemed to be upper caste, barring a few, maintain vegetarianism and the so-called lower castes are free of such restrictions.

Vegetarianism evolved in modern India through two pathways. The first is through conformity with Brahmanism and caste sensibilities, especially visible within the traditionally vegetarian upper castes. The second involves the adoption of vegetarianism through the influence of myriad religo-spiritual cults, headed by gurus, which have mushroomed across India over the past few decades. While some of these cults are standalone institutions with only local appeal, others have greater influence based on their franchisee business models that allows them to be present across several regions. Cable TV and social media have added to the outreach of these cults and their influence.

Such cults purportedly facilitate the elevation of ordinary mortals to salvation-ready entities through a set of rituals that often includes vegetarianism. While their followers could belong to any caste, they are especially appealing to the so-called lower caste communities that aspire to climb the caste hierarchy through the well-known process of Sanskritisation. Thus vegetarianism becomes an attractive mechanism for upward social mobility in a rigid caste hierarchy. Although these neo-vegetarians follow an innovative path by changing their dietary preferences, the fact that they follow traditionally established Brahminical practices undermines the spirit of innovation. Vegetarianism in modern India is thus largely driven by conformity to traditional social norms above any other motivation.

The many shades of being vegetarian in India: a popular forward on social media.

India: Vegetarianism without social justice

Traditional Indian vegetarianism is also unique in relation to ethical and moral concerns. Although Brahminical vegetarianism is rooted in the ethics of animal welfare, the absence of any restriction on milk products makes it substantively different from animal welfare concerns in the West. In fact, the vegetarian diet in India places a premium on milk and milk products such as cheese, butter and yogurt, and this has opened the doors for the industrial use of animals unquestioningly. Thus, the concern for animal welfare among Indian vegetarians is much weaker than in the West. Finally, the discourse of vegetarianism is so completely monopolised by the notions of ritual purity and pollution that concerns for the environment and food safety have almost no space on the agenda.

This brings us to the question: what kind of a person is the Indian vegetarian individual? A traditionally vegetarian person in India is the opposite of all that her counterpart in the West is. For one, a person is largely born into vegetarianism in India. The consumptive life of a vegetarian in India is based on the complete acceptance of received knowledge about food taboos especially meat. Therefore being a vegetarian in India is not as deliberate as in the West, but is mainly about reproducing everyday norms. Couple this uncritical norm reproduction with the strong connections that vegetarianism has with Brahminism and caste sensibilities to see how vegetarianism is central to making or maintaining boundaries in an unequal society. For all practical purposes, vegetarianism in India is about maintaining the caste system, as well as about reinforcing perceptions of superiority and inferiority of caste based groups, based on the avoidance of meat.

While a vegetarian American might treat the food preferences of a meat eater with harmless contempt, in India a vegetarian’s scorn for meat-based diets and meat-eating individuals has real consequences. This takes place through social distancing and exclusion based on the notions of ritual purity or pollution that are inherent to the caste system. The vertical nature of caste-based society in India ensures that vegetarianism is not simply a food preference, but a pathway that shapes one’s life outcomes through social or material rewards and punishments. In other words, vegetarianism in India is as much about the maintenance of social inequality, than it is about anything else. Thus, a common vegetarian individual in India is most likely a conservative figure generally detached from the broad ideas of social egalitarianism, and social justice.

Aseem Hasnain teaches sociology and Abhilasha Srivastava teaches economics and interdisciplinary courses at Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts.